By Matt Villano, on May 20, 2013

Nature’s zoo

Considering how much wildlife abounds in and around Monterey, California, I like to consider the area nature’s zoo.


Whales, otters, condors and butterflies are just some of the critters my family has ogled in the region over the years. And because most of these animals hang around at different times of year, there’s quite literally always something to watch.


I’m a whale-lover, so, naturally, my favorite wildlife-oriented activity near Monterey is to watch whales. A fish-filled deep water canyon in Monterey Bay attracts these giant leviathans with regularity over the course of the spring and summer. On any given day, you might spot humpbacks, grays, orcas or even blue whales—the largest animals in the world.


Sometimes, you even can see deep-diving beaked whales (for us whaleheads, this is a real treat).

Inspecting the bees at Carmel Valley Ranch, near Monterey


On one of our recent visits, a few grays came so close to shore that we spotted their geyser-like blows from bluffs ringing the bay. My older daughter was convinced they had come just for us.


Monterey Bay also is a great place to witness sea otters in their natural habitat. These furry creatures can be spotted just about all over the region (often in or near kelp forests), but their favorite place to hang is the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve near Moss Landing, just north of the city.


On boat tours of the Slough, we have witnessed the little buggers relaxing on the mud flats, frolicking in the beachgrass, swimming in the open water, and floating on their backs while they devour crab and clams for dinner.


The waterway also is a great place to spot birds; at last check, more than 346 species had been sighted there.


Of course no place in the Monterey area trumps Pinnacles National Monument for birdwatching. Located near Soledad, this park—the newest in our National Park System—is home to the largest population of California Condors in the world, a population that local wildlife biologists rescued from the brink of extinction less than three decades ago.


Today, rangers monitor more than 30 free-flying condors that roost in the park. There’s no guarantee you’ll see them, but early-morning hikes through the High Peaks area usually result in a sighting or two. (Experts also offer guided walks from time to time.)

Viewfinder tip: Be patient when you head out to watch wildlife; because the animals are wild, they may not want to come out and be seen.

Finally, if you’re visiting in fall, Monterey Bay is one of the best spots on the entire Pacific Coast to see Monarch butterflies. These orange-winged critters flock to the area to settle in forests and wait out the winter. Though you can spot them from Big Sur to Moss Landing, their favorite place to congregate is Pacific Grove.


The last time we were in Monterey Bay, in 2012, we checked out a protected area dedicated to these special bugs: The Pacific Grove Butterfly Sanctuary.


Over the course of an hour-long visit to this special spot, we wandered amid the smooth tree trunks of a eucalyptus grove and spotted butterflies fluttering everywhere. In some cases, the winged bugs were hanging in colorful clusters of ten or more. A naturalist told us they do this to maintain body temperature; my older daughter just thought they were hugging.

There are other kinds of wildlife to see in the Monterey area; everything from wild turkeys to honeybees, dolphins to boar. My advice for a visit to the region is to keep your eyes open and your cameras ready. As frequently as you possibly can.

What do you bring along when you head out to watch wildlife?